May 3, 2005
New Light on M.I.T. Issues, With a (Gasp!) Biologist at the Helm
AMBRIDGE, Mass., April 26 - When Dr. Susan Hockfield was named president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year, there was talk that M.I.T. was breaking new ground. What would it mean, many wondered, if one of the world's leading citadels of physics, electrical engineering and other hard sciences were led for the first time by - a biologist?
That discussion did not last long because Dr. Hockfield was also the first woman to head M.I.T. And soon after she took office in December, she found herself in the middle of a still-simmering debate over whether women have the will and the capacity to achieve at the highest levels of science.
One of her first major public acts as president was to respond to a suggestion, by Harvard's president, Dr. Lawrence H. Summers, that one reason for the relative dearth of women at the upper ranks of science might be an innate lesser ability.
"Marie Curie exploded that myth," Dr. Hockfield and two other university presidents, Dr. Shirley M. Tilghman of Princeton and Dr. John L. Hennessy of Stanford, wrote in an essay that appeared on the op-ed page of The Boston Globe. But women need "teachers who believe in them," they went on, and low expectations of women "can be as destructive as overt discrimination."
Today, as she prepares for her presidential inauguration on Friday, Dr. Hockfield says she regrets having been "thrown" into the debate.
She herself has never encountered discrimination because of her sex, she said in an interview - or if she has, she has never noticed it. And other issues, like financing for science and reconciling the sometimes conflicting demands of commercial and academic research are also pressing, she said.
Still, she said, the reaction of M.I.T. students to Dr. Summers's remarks "made me aware that we needed to say something."
"There was a real sense of just being puzzled and being unsure and feeling abandoned and of really being deeply unsettled," she continued.
Besides, she added, squandered talent "is one of the key issues of women in science and engineering."
The place of women in science and engineering is not a new issue for M.I.T., which under its previous president, Dr. Charles M. Vest, acknowledged that it had been unintentionally discriminating and took a number of steps like temporarily stopping the tenure clock for women who have children.
So having a woman in the president's office is of little practical importance now, Dr. Vest said in an interview. But its symbolism "is very powerful," he said.
Dr. Hockfield's training gives her an unusual vantage point on the debate. Her field is neuroscience, in particular how experiences in life shape the structure and, therefore, the function of the brain.
"I always kind of smile when people say, 'Is it nature or nurture?' " she said. "It clearly is nature and nurture."
Dr. Hockfield, who is 54, was born in Chicago and her family moved often as her father, a patent lawyer, worked his way up the corporate hierarchy of General Electric. Eventually, he was posted to the company's headquarters in New York. She attended high school in Chappaqua, and graduated from the University of Rochester in 1973.
Even when she was a small child, she recalled, the "received wisdom" in her family was that she would become a doctor. Though she studied biology in college with an eye to medical school, something about that goal did not feel right.
It was not until a sympathetic adviser steered her into a summer job in a laboratory that she realized that what interested her was not treating the ills of the body but figuring out how it functioned. "It was the thing I had been looking for, searching for, all my life," she said.
After earning a doctorate in anatomy at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1979, she was a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.
In those days, she said, neuroscience was just emerging as a field in its own right. Scientists were only beginning to probe the detailed workings of the nervous system, using monoclonal antibodies and other new tools to identify the proteins active in the brain.
At Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, she saw some of this work. "I had a visceral feeling of just profound curiosity and interest," she recalled.
At the invitation of Dr. James D. Watson, the laboratory's director, she went to the lab in 1980. Working there, she said, was like "having a black bag full of jewels and putting your hand in and pulling them out one by one."
In 1985, she joined the faculty of Yale, where she met her husband, Dr. Thomas Byrne, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a teacher at M.I.T. They have a daughter, Elizabeth, 13. It was also at Yale that Dr. Hockfield moved into university administration, first, from 1998 to 2002, as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and then as provost.
Some researchers who make that switch maintain their research efforts, or try to. Dr. Hockfield is not among them. And even though her eyes light up when she recalls her days at the laboratory bench, she said she did not regret leaving it behind - even on the recent day when Elizabeth said she was having trouble using a microscope at school.
Dr. Hockfield said she was about to suggest they go to her lab and practice when she realized, "Oh, well, we can't just go to my lab and look at my microscope."
But administration has its own rewards, she said, adding, "There is just a huge amount of intellectual collaboration that goes into helping to lead the university."
She said she expected to continue the practice, which dates from World War II, of M.I.T. presidents' serving "as a kind of adviser to the government and spokesperson for sound policies for science."
For example, she expects to advocate for greater research spending on the physical sciences. People in the physical sciences have not done as well as biologists in making the case for their work, she said, and as a result, "the level of funding for research in America is very distressing."
But how easy is it to advocate for science at a time when many Americans, including the president, do not accept evolution, the idea that human activity is altering the earth's climate or other ideas science regards as more or less established?
Dr. Hockfield did not answer that question directly. But she said she was profoundly worried about what she called a "disrespect" for the wonders of math, science, engineering and technology.
"As a nation we have ceased to be inspired by these things," she said.
That is one of the issues she said she eventually hoped to address. Right now, though, she is spending a lot of time getting to know her new environment.
Recently, she and her husband and daughter went on a campus radio show, where faculty members and others play and discuss their favorite music.
Elizabeth did not agree with one of her parents' choices, Bob Dylan, making for some lively off-the-air moments. "It was pretty fun," said Eric Chemi, a senior electrical engineering and computer science major who is host of the show. "The three of them were arguing about music."
For him, the notable thing about Dr. Hockfield's appointment was not that she was a biologist or a woman, but rather that she was the mother of a young child, and that "she and her husband and her daughter are partners in this thing."
Dr. Hockfield, he said, has "a sort of charisma" that makes her easy for an undergraduate to talk with.
"She makes you feel like she wants you to succeed," he said.